Thursday, April 30, 2015

Interview with Stephen Merlino (#author of the #fantasy, The Jack of Souls)

Why did you pursue writing?
The short answer is: So my head wouldn’t explode!
The long answer is this:
As soon as I read The Lord of the Rings, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to invent and explore and share fantastic and magical worlds and characters.
My earliest memory of this is from the seventh grade, when my best friend and I sat in the back of my parent’s huge yellow station wagon as they drove us up to the ski slopes. We were discussing The Sword of Shannara when my friend announced he was going be a fantasy writer, and that he would start his own fantasy epic right then and there. He had already named it, The Onyx Box, and it would start like this, “The taciturn dwarf held his ground, his double-bladed battle ax held tight in iron fists…”
I remember it because it was the first time I’d heard anyone speak the word “taciturn” out loud, and it sounded like “TACK-a-turn,” which I wasn’t sure of, and because I wished I had been first to claim to the dream.
Of course, it turned out it would be me who fulfilled the dream, at age 49. My friend now plays guitar in a world-famous rock band, and probably doesn’t remember The Onyx Box.
In high school and college, I pursued writing as a playground for an over-active imagination, and to give shape to all the daydreams of magic and adventure. And that’s still true today: these days, if I don’t write, I become restless, uncentered, and unhappy; while writing, all is right with the world. It’s a mediation for me.
I think, too, I’m simply wired for Story the way some people are wired for Math. I will never be one for whom numbers come easily or make natural sense. Numbers exhaust me. Story, on the other hand, makes natural, inherent, effortless sense to me. I’m not saying I’ve mastered writing stories—not by a long shot!—but pursuing it fills me, restores me, and sets my heart singing.
That said, how could I not pursue writing?

What inspired your book?
That’s a fun question. The short answer is that this story came from my habit of asking, What if…? and dreaming up answers to that question.
What if there was a land where…
What if there was a young trickster who…
The more I ask those questions, the more a scene takes shape in my imagination.
Stephen King talks about stories beginning the moment he sees a specific character and setting in his mind. Then he gives the character a problem and watches her spring to action to fix the problem. From then on out it’s like following a string through long grass—never sure where it’s going, but pretty sure of the direction. That’s the way I experience writing, too. I don’t outline it. I start with a What if or two, and before I know it, I’m seeing visions of people and places. For The Jack of Souls, it began when I imagined a young rogue on the edge of a frontier, making a killing selling grain to pioneers on a land rush. The image came to me as I led a history tour through the American West. In the days when I was a tour guide, I lived among stories of wilderness and adventure and especially loved tales of gold seekers and the people who supplied them. Few of the gold seekers held on to much gold, but the people who sold them supplies had bags of it! (Hence my rogue character.) I also admired the pioneers who answered the call of the Homestead Act—that most admirable legislation—that sent thousands west for free land. (Hence the land rush.)

So how did The Jack of Souls go from Western inspiration to Fantasy?

Easy! A great thing about fantasy is you can riff off of a variety of interests and passions and mash them together to create something new. Along with the American West, I have a passion for Shakespeare’s England—Elizabeth’s England—which I studied in grad school. I dare say the zeitgeists of the American West and Elizabeth’s England have a lot in common; both were periods of thrilling exploration, powerful optimism, and immense national pride—even arrogance. So, what if there were a world where a kingdom like Elizabeth’s England had a wild frontier like a Wild West full of magic and mystery and monsters?

And voila! The setting took shape in my mind. I saw a pacifist queen ruling alone, educating the ladies of her court, refusing to marry, skillfully evading lords who wished to put an end to such nonsense by placing a warlike king on the throne. And I saw her creating a savvy political distraction for these malcontents by opening her frontiers and offering free land to any who would settle it.

Land rush! What lord could resist?

Which brings us back to the young man selling grain on the frontier...

I wanted the main character to be a rogue. He wouldn’t be particularly strong, but he’d be extremely clever and living by his wits. I imagined him as a frontier con ?rtist with a heart of gold—that is, a trickster who only targeted corrupt, treasonous or abusive lords.

And what if he had a woman friend who was his “muscle”?

And what if she was one of the Queen’s free ladies, intent on becoming a knight?

At that point I had two of three vital elements of story: Character + Setting, but for a story we still need a Problem. Character + Setting + Problem = Story

So I gave him one. He’s going to die on the following day unless he finds a way to break a curse on his fate.

Ouch. That got him moving.

And the young woman’s problem? She wants to serve in the court of her savvy Queen, but she understands horses better than she understands people. In fact, she doesn’t understand complex social interaction. From there it was a just matter of watching him go and following the string through the grass of the world I’d imagined.

How long have you been publishing your work?
The Jack of Souls is my first novel. Three months ago I published it on Amazon in paperback, hardback, and ebook, and since that time it’s been an Amazon eBook Bestseller with 45 reader reviews averaging 4.5 stars. Hot dang!
Last month it received a fantastic review from the highly regarded Midwest Book Review, for which I am very grateful. Here’s a snippet from it:
The first volume in Stephen Merlino's 'The Unseen Moon' series, The Jack of Souls, is a terrific read from beginning to end and clearly establishes Merlino as a master of the fantasy action/adventure genre. Highly recommended for community library Science Fiction & Fantasy collections
What’s your writing environment like?
I have to write alone, in silence. Sometimes this means in a café or library with
earplugs and blinders; sometimes it just means in a quiet room in the house. If the latter, I put a sign on the door reading, “BLOOD OR FIRE.” My kids know this means, Don’t interrupt unless you’re bleeding or the house is burning.
What projects are you currently working on?
Right now I’m working on book 2 in the series, The Knave of Soulsto be released on Amazon this August!—and I’m recording The Jack of Souls audiobook.
Fun fact: Remember the friend who abandoned his 7th grade dream of writing The Onyx Box and grew up to play in a band? He’s doing the music for the audiobook. So I guess those dreams do come around again.
Thanks for reading! 

Author Bio:

Stephen Merlino lives in Seattle, WA, where he writes, plays, and teaches high school English. He lives with the world's most talented and desirable woman, two fabulous children, and three attack chickens.

Growing up in Seattle drove Stephen indoors for eight months of the year. Before the age of video games, that meant he read a lot. At the age of eleven he discovered the stories of J.R.R. Tolkein and fell in love with fantasy.

Summers and rare sunny days he spent with friends in wooded ravines or on the beaches of Puget Sound, building worlds in the sand, and fighting orcs and wizards with driftwood swords.

About the time a fifth reading of The Lord of the Rings failed to deliver the old magic, Stephen attended the University of Washington and fell in love with Chaucer and Shakespeare and all things English.

Sadly, the closest he got to England back then was The Unicorn Pub on University Way, which wasn't even run by an Englishman: it was run by a Scot named Angus. Still, he studied there, and as he sampled Angus's weird ales, and devoured the Unicorn's steak & kidney pie (with real offal!), he developed a passion for Scotland, too.

In college, he fell in love with writing, and when a kindly professor said of a story he'd written, "You should get that published!" Stephen took the encouragement literally, and spent the next years trying. The story remains unpublished, but the quest to develop it introduced Stephen to the world of agents (the story ultimately had two), and taught him much of craft and the value of what Jay Lake would call, "psychotic persistence."

Add to that his abiding love of nerds--those who, as Sarah Vowel defines it, "go too far and care too much about a subject"--and you have Stephen Merlino in a nutshell.

Stephen is the 2014 PNWA winner for Fantasy.

He is also the 2014 SWW winner for Fantasy.

His novel, The Jack of Souls is in its fourth month in the top ten on Amazon’s Children’s Fantasy Sword & Sorcery Best Seller list, and among the top three in Coming-of-Age.
You can find Stephen online at

Buy on Amazon         
Read more on Goodreads
Twitter: (@stephenmerlino)

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